Skip to content

Business & Economy

Interview: Limitless opportunities

With a £4.2 billion devolution deal agreed with Government, the north of the region stands on the brink of watershed change. Promising thousands of jobs and billions in potential private sector investment, the mayoral-led power shift includes further significant funding for areas such as housing, skills and transport, and the creation of a louder voice to echo around Westminster’s corridors of power. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, one of the authorities to have signed the landmark agreement, to find out more about its many possibilities, and why it will help add further momentum to Wearside’s renaissance.


Councillor Graeme Miller turns the handle of a large glass door, immediately replacing the silence of his sixth-floor City Hall office with the thrum of industrial activity.

Stepping on to a small, paved terrace, a breeze, pushing wispy clouds across a pale blue afternoon sky, catches his maroon tie, twisting and flicking the golden detailed neckwear over his shoulder as he turns his head to survey the scene.

There’s plenty to take in.

Where Samson and Double Maxim once swilled around Vaux’s sprawling brewery, today the site is a picture book for regeneration, a playlist for the harmonising of public and private sector investment to catalyse economic and social renaissance.

Just beyond the square steelwork that frames the Sunderland City Council leader’s panoramic platform, a choir of builders fills the air with assorted clatter, its chief chorister taking centre stage on an exposed expanse of the partly-completed Maker office block.

By its side, the Faber-titled commercial hub stands naked too, the persistent Wearside wind weaving through its many columns.

All three are fuelled by a £100 million commitment from financial services organisation Legal & General, lynchpins in the wider Riverside Sunderland scheme that is transforming ex-industrial land into a business and community-focused hub capable of supporting thousands of jobs.

Elsewhere, as weak winter sunshine adds flashes to a new 650-space car park’s argent façade and The Beam, already housing tenants including Ocado, springs into view on its V-shaped pillars, work continues on a £36 million eye hospital and a 1000 sustainable home scheme.

Further in the distance, the Stadium of Light, where Rokermen officially became Black Cats at the turn of the millennium, skirts the currents and curves of the River Wear, its giant scoreboard peeking above the South Stand roof line.

A grin spreads across Councillor Miller’s face, born from an appreciation of the changes all around and how, if really needed, a squint towards the giant display can provide an instant matchday precis.

His goals, however, go far beyond Sunderland AFC’s latest Championship match, and further even than the city’s waterside revitalisation.

They rise over the hills to South Tyneside, track north westerly to Gateshead and traverse the River Tyne to Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland before swooping south to Durham.

For, as one of the seven local authority leaders to have signed a £4.2 billion devolution deal with the Government in late January, he is at the centre of efforts to deliver meaningful change.

Earmarked to create 24,000 jobs and leverage billions of pounds in private sector support, officials say the agreement – which was under public consultation as North East Times Magazine went to print – will include a flagship £1.4 billion investment fund, worth £48 million a year, to drive economic growth and regeneration.

Elsewhere, £1.8 billion, or £60 million a year, has been set aside to boost adult education and skills – which could annually deliver as many as 70,000 extra training courses – with a £900 million package identified for transport improvements and further pots ringfenced to galvanise housing and other commercial projects.

Creating a new ruling body, overseen by a mayor tipped to be elected in spring 2024, the new regime would replace the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) – which covers Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland – and the North East Combined Authority (NECA) – which includes Sunderland, Durham, Gateshead and South Tyneside.

“The opportunities are limitless,” says Councillor Miller, now sitting at a round table in his office.

“We have money for skills, which will help the North East catch up with the South when it comes to attainment levels, because it will lead to higher rates of further and higher education, and therefore greater levels of graduates with qualifications relevant to the 21st century and the green agenda.

“There are pots for housing, regeneration and brownfield sites, and the £900 million transport fund will actually represent much more than that, because it will renew every five years.

“And if we do this right, work with the right partners and have a plan that is clear for business, we expect to bring in at least £5 billion to enhance what we’re doing.”

“All that could hold us back is vision,” adds Councillor Miller, who combines his Sunderland City Council leadership role with that of NECA chair.

“The mayor has to have a plan, which must include all seven authorities.

“All seven have to be – and feel – included in what we are doing. And we have to be absolutely fair on that.”


For a while, the collective to which Councillor Miller refers seemed it may be split, with a number of Durham’s elected members seeking a separate deal for the cathedral city and its towns and villages.

However, when those plans bottomed out, the southernmost authority of the local government septet – referred to as LA7 in some quarters – returned.

And it was a move Councillor Miller welcomed with open arms, not just from the perspective of extending the devolution deal’s geographical breadth, but maintaining a unity that grew amid the adversity of COVID-19.

He says: “I’m delighted Durham are back in the fold – a seven makes eminent sense.

“When Durham asked to come back, we talked to the Government and said, ‘you have to give everyone more – you can’t give everyone six sevenths’.

“And ministers understood the logic.

“As the LA7, we have worked well together.

“During the pandemic, through its directors of public health, the LA7 was telling the Government what to do ten days before Westminster was doing things.

“It really showed we could work together in a trusting way, and if we continue in that manner, we will drive this deal forward.”

Such accord will also allow the authorities to progress in a way that escaped them in 2016, when a devolution deal with George Osborne, under the auspices of the former Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse venture, floundered and led to the subsequent creation of NTCA and NECA.

And Councillor Miller says he is excited by the potential, with the strong bonds augmented by what he believes is a much more robust agreement.

He says: “What we have now is quite different to what we would have had in 2016.

“This is a much bigger and better deal.”

What the arrangement won’t do, however, is replace finances lost by the local authorities over previous years through Government cuts.

But, says Councillor Miller, it will provide a golden opportunity to prize open larger projects that could have otherwise remained locked away and postponed for perpetuity.

He says: “It isn’t going to repair the money we have lost.

“Since 2010, if you rolled up the revenue we’ve lost – slightly addressed this year with an increase in funding – it comes to £2.4 billion, with the majority of that coming from the first seven years of the Osborne austerity programme.

“The devolved mayoral authority is not about fixing that – it couldn’t possibly be, because you’d end up with a figure well in excess of £10 billion in losses across the local authorities.

“Instead, we’re trying to put in a structure that will deliver on big ticket items for all seven councils.

“It’ll be projects the authorities can’t find the money to do themselves, which involve bodies like National Rail and National Grid.”

Pointing to the potential revival of the mothballed 21-mile Leamside line, between Tursdale, in County Durham, and Pelaw, Councillor Miller adds: “Bringing the Metro to Sunderland through Gateshead is a key project.

“But I don’t have the money or the political clout with Government to get them to re-open the Leamside route.

“The mayor, however, will have such powers, and can give me Leamside upgrades to get me the Metro to Washington.

“That is the whole point of the devolution deal.”

He adds: “I expect South Tyneside will want investment in their college, and Gateshead and Newcastle will want further investment in their clean air zone and possibly regular investment in the Tyne Bridge.

“North Tyneside and Northumberland will want the Ashington to Blyth rail link into Newcastle, and Durham will have its priorities too.

“And to make progress happen, we need to ensure all partners are talking, so we can draw up a list scrupulously and fairly.

“It will be like the draft in American Football, with first and second choices – nobody will get their second until everyone has had their first.

“That hasn’t happened in the past, but it is vital everyone has their fair share of the cake.”

And Councillor Miller says the devolution deal won’t affect the work completed – and being completed – across Sunderland, either.

On the contrary, he says the momentum built up across Wearside – which also includes the £80 million Legal & General-backed, Washington-based Hillthorn Business Park, will only increase.

He says: “This doesn’t impact or change anything for me as council leader.

“We will still have the same issues on things like roads and getting the bins emptied.

“None of that will change but, crucially, we will have greater ability to work strategically with the mayor on areas such as housing, skills and transport to make significant improvements.

“As a city, Sunderland is coming from a way back.

“My predecessor Paul Watson started things off by getting the Northern Spire bridge (between the Castletown and Pallion areas of Sunderland) and the associated road network built, which gives value to the land because there is proper connectivity now.

“And we have continued on that path.

“I’ve got a very good officer team here; I can give political certainty, but I also need people around me to deliver projects – and I’ve got that.

“Chief executive Patrick Melia and I drew up a city plan in 2018, and we have delivered – and continue delivering – on it.

“We’ve built things, we’ve progressed things, we now do more with less or the same.

“And we have a fantastic relationship with Legal & General, thanks in no small part to the work of executive director of city development Peter McIntyre.

“We’ll still have our challenges; we didn’t get ‘levelling up’ cash in the latest funding round, which would have helped build a footbridge to the Stadium of Light.

“But it will still get built; we’ll move capital and put some projects back, you have to be flexible like that.”

He adds: “It’s this kind of approach that will be central to the new authority under the devolution deal, with LA7 leaders effectively acting as cabinet members to the mayor.

“And as long as everything is done fairly, it will be hugely successful for the region.”